I have to admit that I was a little skeptical when I picked up John Gorman’s The Buzzard: Inside the Glory Days of WMMS and Cleveland Rock Radio. After all, I’ve lived my entire life in Philadelphia, so to me, rock radio has always meant WMMR. (Well, at least it used to, but that’s a whole ‘nother story.) A few pages into The Buzzard, however, I started to get a sense that Gorman’s memoir isn’t just about a radio station in Cleveland; it’s about the precarious place of rock radio in American culture.
The basic issue Gorman sets out to explore in the book is how best to compete in a commercial market without selling out. Working his way from Music Director to Program Director and eventually to Operations Manager of WMMS FM as the narrative progresses, Gorman examines the full potential of FM radio while constantly pushing the medium’s limits. Confounding easy labels like Top 40, Album Oriented Rock, and Contemporary Hits Radio, Gorman and his motley crew of radio professionals reinvent a flagging radio station and eventually turn it into a ratings monster by (who’d’a thunk it?) playing music that people want to hear. But their quest is more than just a quest for ratings, and this, it becomes clear throughout the memoir, was the “secret” of WMMS: Gorman and company wanted to create a radio station for the people of Cleveland–a full service, one-stop-shopping outlet for all of the city’s pop culture needs. In other words, they weren’t merely trying to shove a corporate product down the throats of anyone who might happen to tune in. Instead, they were working hard to become a central part of a community.
WMMS found success by–if you’ll excuse a cliche that Gorman has the good sense never to employ–keepin’ it real. They kept track of what their listeners requested. They played music by local acts (and not just in the low-rated time slots normally reserved for such fare). They helped to break national acts like Bruce Springsteen, and they offered their listeners a wide variety of musical programming with music from multiple genres like jazz, oldies, classic rock (before such a label existed), hard rock, and soul.
Reading Gorman’s account made me yearn for a station as relevant and wide-reaching as WMMS apparently was–emphasis on was, for as the station evolved into a ratings monster, the powers that be were sowing the seeds of its undoing. In the case of WMMS the powers that be turned out to be the corporate parents whose efforts to ensure the continued success of the station involved trying to distill everything that made it unique and relevant into a simple, static formula. The trouble with this strategy, however, was that it failed to take into account the fluid nature of the WMMS “formula.” In his various roles at the station, Gorman was much like the leader of a jazz band, always gauging his audience, keeping abreast of current trends in popular culture, and playing by ear when necessary.
Overall, The Buzzard is a must-read for anyone who recalls the days when FM rock radio was relevant. Clevelanders may be a little more familiar with a lot of the names that Gorman drops throughout the book, but for the rest of us, he’s provided a handy cast of characters in the appendix so we can keep score. More important, his love for the station he helped to create is apparent on every page. In fact, Gorman’s tale is so engaging that it’s hard not to become a fan of WMMS even for those of us who never had the chance to tune in.